It is a pleasure to respond to this debate, Sir David. I congratulate Chris Williamson on securing it. I am aware that this issue is contentious. The badger is an iconic species. It is a protected species in our countryside. I completely understand that many people have strong feelings about the policy and the approach we are taking. As I and the Secretary of State have said before, none of us wants to cull badgers for any longer than is necessary. However, to answer his question, the reason why we still have these debates is that the Government are of the clear view that it is necessary to have a badger cull as part of a coherent strategy to eradicate TB. We believe that that is firmly underpinned by the evidence—I will return to that because the hon. Gentleman and others raised questions about the science.
The badger cull is just one part of our wider strategy to eradicate TB. The absolute heart of our strategy has always been regular cattle testing and removal. In the high-risk area, we currently have annual testing; we have four-yearly testing in the low-risk area; we have pre-movement testing; we introduced compulsory post-movement testing; we have radial testing in the low-risk area, where we get a breakdown; and we have contiguous testing in the high-risk area on the farms surrounding a breakdown. All of these measures mean that we are regularly testing our herds and regularly removing reactors to that testing.
Diagnostics, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are important. We recognise that TB is a difficult disease to fight. It is difficult to detect because it is a slow-moving, insidious disease, and none of the diagnostic tests are perfect. However, one thing we have done is make greater use of the interferon gamma test—the blood test—to remove infection from herds when it is picked up. We are also deploying that test more proactively in areas where the cull has taken place so that we can bear down on infection in cattle. We have also introduced a more severe interpretation on inconclusive reactors to the skin test. Diagnostics are important and part of our strategy is to improve testing. We are supporting a number of initiatives to improve testing, but at the moment we are using the more sensitive blood test in conjunction with the skin test to improve our detection rates.
A number of hon. Members mentioned biosecurity, which is important—biosecurity is a key part of our strategy to eradicate TB. A few years ago, I introduced a new accreditation scheme—the cattle health certification standards scheme, or CHEcS. We encouraged farmers to sign up and to take steps to manage risk to their herd, both in terms of risk-based trading for the cattle that they bring on to their holding and in terms of protecting the herd and their farmyard from badger incursion, for instance using fencing. We recently changed the compensation regime to incentivise farmers to sign up to the biosecurity scheme, meaning that if they do not sign up to it they face receiving lower compensation for cattle reactors that they bring into their herd.
We have always been clear that vaccination, which a number of hon. Members mentioned, could have a role, particularly in the edge area, and possibly as a way of getting an exit strategy from the cull once we have borne down on the population. We have been supporting vaccination pilots in the edge area—the so-called badger edge vaccination scheme, or BEVS, which we restarted this year once vaccines became available again.
The difficulty with vaccination, as my hon. Friend Simon Hart pointed out, is that we have to catch badgers regularly to top up the vaccination. It is not the case that we can inject them just once. Vaccination does not cure badgers that have the disease, so the scheme has limitations, but we have always maintained that it could have a role to assist in an exit strategy. That is why we continue, for instance, to fund work to try and get an oral bait vaccine that we could deploy in the badger population.